How Israel and Turkey Benefit From Restoring Relations

In Brief

How Israel and Turkey Benefit From Restoring Relations

The reopening of diplomatic ties with Israel is the latest move in Turkey’s regional rapprochement. With it, Ankara aims to bolster national security and its wavering economy.

What prompted Israel and Turkey to repair ties?

The August 17 announcement that Israel and Turkey will normalize diplomatic relations and exchange ambassadors comes not long after Turkey improved ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Turkish government has determined that de-escalation with Israel and other regional powers better serves its interests as it confronts economic problems at home and focuses on core national security concerns, such as Kurdish nationalism and relations with Cyprus and Greece.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu shake hands during a press conference
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu shake hands during a press conference in Ankara, Turkey. Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

The improvement of Israel-Turkey ties is a significant change. Over the last dozen years, relations have been fraught. The primary issue has been Israel’s approach toward the Palestinian territories; specifically, its policies toward the Gaza Strip, which include a long-standing Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the area and periodic Israeli military interventions. Since the early 2000s, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party has been a patron of Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza. In 2018, Turkey downgraded relations with Israel and expelled the Israeli ambassador from Ankara after Israeli forces killed sixty Palestinians on the Gaza border during a protest against the Donald Trump administration’s transfer of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In response, the Israelis banished the Turkish ambassador.

What does each country gain from restoring diplomatic ties now?

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For Israel, it has always been important to establish relations with non-Arab countries in and around the Middle East. Turkey is also important to Israel’s national security for, among other things, allowing closer Israeli intelligence monitoring of Iran. In addition, the Israelis hope that improved ties with Turkey will put pressure on Hamas, which has established a presence in Istanbul and run operations from Turkey over the last decade.

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Ankara seems less interested in Israel per se than how the resumption of diplomatic ties can improve its position in Washington. The Turkish government believes that pro-Israel groups and Jewish advocacy organizations will help Turkey on Capitol Hill regarding the sale of F-16 fighters to Turkey and other issues of import to Ankara. This is not unprecedented. During the late 1990s, strong Israel-Turkey security ties found a lot of support in Washington, including among pro-Israel groups and leaders of the American Jewish community.

One of the most important factors driving the rapprochement is natural gas, which Israel discovered off its coast in 2010. Among the places Israel would like to sell that gas is Europe. The most economically viable way to get Israeli gas to Europe is through Turkey. Both countries stand to gain economically and diplomatically should they play a role in reducing Europe’s dependence on Russia for energy.      

How does this fit into Turkey’s broader efforts toward rapprochement in the region?

After a decade of needlessly aggressive policies and rhetoric toward Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan determined that Turkey’s regional posture had reached its limit: Ankara was isolated and had few, if any, achievements to vindicate its approach.

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The tensions Turkey had with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have varied, but the friction was based on Turkish accusations that these Arab countries were sources of regional instability. Egyptian, Saudi, and Emirati leadership responded that it was not their policies, but rather those of Erdogan that sowed regional hostility. During this period of heightened tension, the Arab countries improved their diplomatic relations and upgraded their security cooperation with Cyprus and Greece—Turkey’s foes in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey, meanwhile, became a strategic partner of Qatar and established a military presence in that Gulf country, which between 2017 and 2021 was under a blockade imposed by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

With President Erdogan facing elections in the second half of 2023, he is seeking better ties with his former foes in hopes that doing so will help improve the ailing Turkish economy through investment and currency swaps; generate goodwill for Ankara in Washington; and improve Turkey’s position in the Eastern Mediterranean.

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What are the implications for Israel’s cooperation with Cyprus and Greece?

During the years of Israel-Turkey tension, Israel’s relations with Cyprus and Greece improved dramatically. Diplomatic, economic, and security cooperation deepened. Tourism rapidly increased as Israelis abandoned Turkey’s Mediterranean coast in favor of Cyprus and Greece’s islands. The Israel Defense Forces trained with their Cypriot and Greek counterparts. Cyprus became customer for Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system.

The Israelis will now need to balance the geostrategic and potential economic benefits of cooperation with Turkey with Jerusalem’s well-developed ties with Athens and Nicosia. Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who has taken a lead role in the Israel-Turkey rapprochement, has sought to reassure Cyprus and Greece that Israel remains committed to the progress it has made with those countries. That is an important message because as Turkey has de-escalated with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and now Israel—Egypt remains a holdout—Ankara has become more aggressive in the Aegean Sea, increasing its military overflights and incursions of Greek territory while continuing to pose a threat to the Republic of Cyprus. Turkey has more than thirty thousand troops deployed in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, an entity bordering Cyprus that only Turkey recognizes.

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